Directed by Tarsem
The opening credits show a quizzical slow motion scene of cowboys on a high bridge, pulling a horse out of the water below, a preamble to a two-pronged story, the majority of it taking place in Los Angeles “long long ago” where an inquisitive little girl with a broken arm finds injured stuntman Roy in a hospital bed. The girl barely speaks or understands English, but they’re able to communicate through a strange story Roy tells her about five adventurers who have been trapped together on an island by the evil Governor Odeous who’s only quest is for revenge. As Roy tells this story, we watch it being recreated in colorful detail in fantastic environments incorporating elements from the hospital and the people surrounding the duo much like “The Wizard of Oz.”
With a child-like sense of storytelling and an artistic eye reminiscent of Peter Greenaway or even Matthew Barney, Tarsem is clearly a visionary, finding amazing far-off locations that have rarely been captured on film and creating large-scale images that could easily be framed and hung in the world’s finest galleries. It’s an amazing achievement in production design and cinematography with an equally lavish score by Krishna Levy, but there’s enough action to keep the film from becoming a static series of paintings like “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” Parallels can also be drawn to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” in the way Tarsem mixes dark reality with high fantasy to create a jarring adult fairy tale.
Even though the epic visuals leave the most lasting impact, the film probably could have been carried just as easily by the unlikely relationship between Lee Pace and adorable newcomer Catinca Untaru. Smiling a gap-toothed smile and questioning every part of Roy’s story, Untaru steals their scenes with her warmth and the humor that comes from how the language barrier prevents her from understanding everything he tells her. Pace is incredibly charming and personable with the girl, the two of them creating a truly natural sense of wonder that carries over to the viewer as we watch his fantastic story unfold before our eyes.
Presumably, many of their scenes are improvised, which may be why they feel natural compared to the fantasy sequences where the writing seems forced, sometimes marred by exaggerated over-acting to make the various characters seem more outlandish. As entertaining as it may be, it gets somewhat tiring to try and keep up with the strange directions the story flies off to as they travel across the globe looking for Odeous.
Just as one starts to adapt to the film’s whimsical storytelling tone, the film takes a sudden shift into darkness, as we learn how Roy was injured and he manipulates Alexandria into getting him pills. The fantasy aspect takes a similar shift in tone as the five adventurers are pitted against insurmountable odds, and those who’ve enjoyed the film’s whimsical sense of wonder up to that point might be put off by tonal shift and the horrifying images that accompany it. Some might find this part of the film too much of a downer, but it leads to a number of honest and heartbreaking moments between Alexandria and Roy that justifies the tears.
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